As coronavirus cases rapidly rise and hospitalizations are at an all-time high, the Texas Capitol is gearing up to open its doors Monday.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the move to reopen in a press release last week, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. Six days later, the latter wrote on Facebook that he and his wife had fallen ill with COVID-19.
“We are unable to pinpoint our initial exposure, as we — like so many other families — made the difficult decision to celebrate Christmas with just our own household this year and have diligently followed all health protocols since March, thanks to my wife’s adamant reminders,” Bonnen said in a post. “This disease is no joke in its unpredictability and severity, so please continue to keep your guard up and your loved ones protected.”
The state’s politicians are tasked with striking a delicate balance: Being too lax about COVID-19 will infuriate liberals, but the conservative majority has long demanded a greater relaxation of restrictions.
Further compounding the issue, Abbott’s push to reopen the state’s Capitol to the public on Jan. 4 comes as Texas grapples with an extraordinary number of new coronavirus infections and deaths. Tuesday afternoon, the state’s health department reported that Texas has surpassed 1.5 million confirmed cases.
The Capitol’s home of Travis County is especially struggling to withstand the demands imposed on its health care systems, according to KUT, Austin’s NPR station. Officials may soon need to call in refrigerated trailers to store corpses as its remaining hospital beds dwindle.
While Texas is unlocking its doors, the U.S. Capitol building and other state capitols will remain closed, according to the news site Patch. Even still, Abbott’s announcement of the reopening attracted criticism from conservatives on Twitter. Many believe he should adopt a more laissez-faire approach to coronavirus control measures, including the statewide mask mandate.
“When will our freedom of no face masks be open,” said a Twitter user going by the handle @McKaylaRoseJ.
Liberals also chimed in, with many condemning the move to reopen as irresponsible during a time when COVID-19 deaths are on the rise.
“Well, I guess there will be about 25,000 Texans that will no longer have the opportunity to visit,” wrote Twitter user @ThomasGrissom, referencing the more than 25,000 Texans who have died from the disease.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the state Capitol will be reopened in a safe way to allow the House and Senate to gavel into session. After each chamber goes through the bare-bones process of approving its respective rules, he expects it will be relatively quiet in Austin.
It’s pretty easy to do most of the work of the Legislature without being there in person in January and February, Jones said. Coronavirus interference could become more of an issue in March and April if state lawmakers haven’t been vaccinated, since that’s when they would need to be present for voting.
In fact, staying closed would benefit the Texas political class, regardless of party, Jones said; the more inaccessible the Capitol is, the fewer prying eyes there are to watch what’s going on. Those who do visit in 2021, though, can expect to see longer lines, capacity restrictions and stricter safety guidelines, which isn’t dissimilar to how other establishments are operating.
“If shopping malls are open, there’s really not much of a difference between a shopping mall and the Capitol,” Jones said.
Congress and state capitols are often called the “people’s house,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. In normal times, access to them is a healthy part of the democratic process. However, the pandemic likely won’t be over until at least the first half of the legislative session, so visitation will be riskier.
Texas politicians are likely trying to balance the ideal of access with the practical implications of people being in close quarters, in which social distancing is challenging, Jillson said. Mask-wearing will also be “politically difficult,” at least on the Republican side, he added.
Although the Capitol is reopening, Jillson said it will have a much greater focus on safety during COVID — as well it should.
“If [lawmakers aren’t] diligent about social distancing … then I think they will be open to more criticism and more members will fall ill with the virus,” he said. “Given that the vaccine is only weeks or months away, that would be a stupid thing to do.”